HILLSBORO, Ind. — Ron Colson attended his first Indianapolis 500 when he was 7 years old. That was 66 years ago. He’s missed only one of the Memorial Day weekend classics since then, and that was in 1950 when he had the mumps. He grudgingly handed his prized ticket over to his uncle that year. Luckily for the 10-year-old, it was one of the few early years when the race was televised, and the family friends who owned Crane’s TV Shop in Hillsboro, Ind., invited him to come watch it with them.
“I’m glad that none of them got the mumps from me, but I guess they were willing to risk it to make a little boy happy,” he said.
That little boy inside him still gets happy every spring as the big race approaches. His yard is lined with racing flags during the month of May. If he’s late putting the flags out, people who drive by his house in Hillsboro will stop and ask if everything is all right.
Colson’s wife Jane, who’s attended the Big Race with him for 44 of the 45 years they’ve been married, said, “Ron may not be able to remember what he had for dinner last night, but he can tell you who won the Indy 500 in 1963, and more than likely how the race ended, who came in second and third, and even the color of the car he was driving.”
“I’m not that bad,” Ron said. Then after a slight pause, “Am I?”
His infectious laugh that follows is well-known to radio listeners. He spent more than 25 on the air at WIAI until it changed from country music to rock in 2001. Since then, without missing a beat, he’s been on the air on WKZS (KISS Country 103.1) with a weekly Country Classics Radio Show on Saturdays.
For more than 35 years, his baritone voice also came through the loudspeakers at almost every sporting event played at Fountain Central High School. The retired teacher/guidance counselor’s voice is recognized almost everywhere he goes.
His wife said, “It seems like he can’t go to the grocery store without running into someone who says, ‘Aren’t you on the radio?’ Then next thing you know, he’s reaching in his pocket for a pen and paper to take down a request.”
Greg Green with KISS Country said, “Having worked with Ron for over a decade, and having known him even longer, I can truly say that of all the people I’ve ever known, more than anyone, he has truly never met a stranger. I went with him to an Indy practice this year, and if Ron didn’t know the answer to one of my many questions, he would walk up to someone in the pit or the garage area who looked ‘official’ and get the answer.”
Like a family
For Colson, that’s part of the fun of the race.
“It’s like a big family. We all love racing. We love to not only watch it, but talk about it, remember the big moments, answer questions, think about all the ‘what ifs,’ and speculate about the future.”
When asked about his most memorable Indy 500 race of all, he gave the same answer that he does when you ask him his favorite song: “Well, it’s hard to narrow it down to just one. But if I had to choose …”
Colson mentions the 1973 race as most memorable because of accidents and rain that delayed the race for several days. He had to rush over at the last minute on that Wednesday to catch it.
As for his favorite and most exciting, it was 1982. That year, it was a see-saw finish as Gordon Johncock beat Rick Mears by less than two-tenths of a second.
Colson’s list of favorite drivers is a long one and he’s met them all. He breaks it down by decades, and gives a reason for liking each one.
The family tradition of loving auto racing has been passed down to new generations. His son, Lance, has attended every Indy 500 since he was 8 years old. He said he and his dad will not only go to Indy but several other open wheel races this year. Last year they flew to California for the final race of the Indy car season.
Jane Colson said, “We drive or take a train on vacation to Florida or Oregon because Ron’s afraid of flying, but when Lance asked him to go to a race way out there, he almost jumped on board the airplane.” On that same flight, along with other racing fans was former president and CEO of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Tony George. And naturally, Colson had an opportunity to talk racing with him.
Colson’s daughter, Laura, doesn’t have the racing bug quite like her father and brother, but she’s been to around 25 Indy 500 races.
Tom Shurber, media manager for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, said, “You’d be surprised how many people have attended the Indy 500 for 50 years or more. We’re not sure what the record for the number of years attended is, but we truly appreciate all our fans, like Mr. Colson, who have been with us for so long. People tend to fall in love with our unique event, and it just naturally becomes a tradition.”
Shurber will issue an official certificate from the Speedway showing Ron Colson’s 65 years of attendance. While no official attendance figures are released for the annual event, estimates are that around 300,000 people will attend this year.
Larry Weatherford is a freelance writer for the Commercial-News.